Across the Centuries (Part 1)


by Ken Slump

Posted by Sys Admin almost 3 years ago.

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The Story of Orchids Parallels Much of the General History of Recent Times

PERHAPS FEW OF THOSE WHO pause to admire a flowering orchid in the produce section of their favorite supermarket or in the garden department of their nearest home-improvement center would consider the nativity or history of the plant. But most orchids are not so far removed from their tropical origins, by either time or lineage. 

Some orchids have a historical association with man that extends back many centuries. Indeed, the Greek philosopher Theophrastus wrote of a plant called Orchis, named after its testiculate tubers or bulbs, in a manuscript about plants that was written about the fourth century BC. This plant, described well more than 2,000 years ago, provided the root word for the family of plants we now call orchids.

In the first century AD, a Greek botanist named Dioscorides wrote about the medical properties of plants. He promoted the belief that human conditions and ailments could be affected or cured if treated with plants or plant parts that resembled the affected part of the body in color, shape or appearance. This philosophy seems rather curious today but it persisted across much of Europe until the decades of the late renaissance.

Folklore and superstition governed medical treatment for centuries. Indeed, as late as the 16th and 17th centuries, writers continued to promote the application or consumption of orchid parts to cure all sorts of conditions from swellings and sores to fevers and stomachaches. The tuberous roots or rhizomes of Eurasian orchid species were often regarded as having the power to both increase and decrease sexual lust. It was written that if a man ingested them, he would produce male children, while women who ate them would produce female children.

An even longer association with orchids can be traced to cultures from the Orient. The Chinese emperor Shen Nung is said to have described two orchids in a work dating to the 28th century BC. The well-known Chinese philosopher Confucius (551–479 BC) celebrated the fragrance of some Chinese orchids that came to have important symbolism in that culture as well. By the 14th century AD, the flowers and slender foliage of the genus Cymbidium had become a favorite subject for painting.

The Japanese have appreciated and grown certain orchids for centuries. Among the most popular are unique and unusual varieties of Cymbidium ensi-folium, Aerides japonicum, Bletilla striata and Dendrobium moniliforme. Noble members of Japanese society have traditionally favored the fragrant and diminutive Neofinetia falcata as well.

Yet it was the comparatively recent exploration of the globe by Europeans that led to the geographic and botanic discoveries that produced the large assemblage of diverse plants that today we know as orchids. While the story of orchids parallels much of the general history of recent centuries, it enjoys its own telling, perhaps because for so many decades amazing new versions of orchids were collected from seemingly all corners of the world.

It is difficult to imagine what it was like to live just a few centuries ago when explorers and botanists from Europe tentatively ventured to unknown islands and continents around the globe and gazed upon plants that had never been seen by them before. Some of the earliest orchid descriptions came from the Western Hemisphere. An Aztec herbal dating to 1552 depicts Vanilla, used by the natives not only for flavoring and perfume, but also in lotions intended to ward off fatigue and bestow strength.

By the 17th and 18th centuries, descriptions of epiphytic orchids began to be recorded by various explorers and colonists in much of tropical Asia and tropical America. The plants were often misunderstood and presumed to be parasitic. Some were initially described as varieties of mistletoe, since they grew on trees; others were thought to be some sort of cactus, due to their succulent nature.

According to history, the first tropical orchid cultivated in Europe was noted in 1698. It was a Brassavola nodosa plant that was brought to Holland from the Caribbean island of Curacao. In 1731, a dried specimen of the deciduous terrestrial orchid Bletia purpurea arrived in England. It had come from the Bahama Islands. Written accounts state that its dried subterranean pseudobulbs were planted in a mulched garden bed for winter. The following spring it grew and by summer it flowered. By 1737, English horticulturists were also growing two hardy North American cypripediums. Insufficient descriptions written in an English gardening volume of the time leaves their exact identities uncertain. It is doubtful that any of the plants involved in these early attempts at growing exotic orchids survived for long.

Those in botanical circles were, of course, enthused about and intrigued by these incredible new plants and hopes ran high that more would soon be discovered. It is reported that, some time near the middle of the 18th century, the noted Swedish botanist Linneaus optimistically proposed that a search of the entire world would likely produce at least 100 different species of them.

From the middle of the 18th century through the early part of the 19th century, enthusiasm for orchids seemed to simmer in the horticultural halls of England’s emerging botanic gardens. The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew was involved with orchids from its beginning as a private garden in 1759. Early importations there from the comparatively nearby West Indies included Epidendrum rigidum and some species of Vanilla.

By 1768, the Kew inventory included 24 species of orchids, two of which were tropical. Specimens of Cymbidium ensifolium and Phaius tankervilleae were added to the collection as the result of an expedition to Asia in 1778. Forty-six tropical species and a dozen more from Australia and South Africa composed the Kew collection by 1813. 

Most every prominent botanist, horticulturist and plant collector contributed in some way to the history of orchids, but there are two British sea captains who played small roles as well. Captain Bligh of H.M.S. Bounty transported orchid plants from Jamaica to England in the latter part of the 18th century. Captain Cook’s travels aboard H.M.S. Endeavor returned orchids from Australia in 1780.

But it was in the early part of the 19th century that the orchid craze really began to blossom. Several events that occurred in those years contributed to the phenomenon.

The Horticultural Society of London was founded in 1809, and its interest in orchids as horticultural subjects was a great boon. In 1812, Messrs. Conrad Loddiges and Sons began the first commercial production of orchid plants in their nursery. In 1810, the Liverpool Botanic Garden received the first cattleya known in cultivation. It was a plant of Cattleya loddigesii that had been sent from Brazil. It reportedly grew and flowered annually. A written account of it was not published, however, until 1819 when a division of it was described by Messrs. Loddiges under the name Epidendrum violaceum.

Perhaps the greatest notoriety for orchids, however, came with the first flowering of Cattleya labiata in cultivation. The plant came to England with a shipment of tropical plants collected in 1818 from a mountainous area near Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The recipient was William Cattley, a tropical plant and orchid enthusiast. Ironically, the plant that flowered had been one of several out-of-bloom masses of greenery that had been employed simply as packing material around other tropical plants.

Cattley was intrigued by them and somehow grew them on until one bloomed in November later that year. Its flower was unlike any that had been seen. The sizeable blossom with a beautiful trumpet-shaped labellum caused a sensation. John Lindley wrote the botanical description of it and named the genus in Cattley’s honor.

Another specimen of C. labiata flowered at the Glasgow Botanic Garden the following year and eventually a few more were seen in other collections. Yet the plant remained a rarity in the hands of only a few collectors for nearly 20 years.

It was not until 1836 that the habitat and location of the original plants was rediscovered. Soon commercial growers and wealthy individuals began sending collectors to Brazil to bring back more specimens of this plant. Agricultural pursuits had already destroyed much of its habitat near Rio de Janeiro but collectors extended their search to nearby areas and discovered related species such as Cattleya mendelii, Cattleya trianaei and Cattleya mossiae.

As the interest in the labiate cattleyas grew, so did the understanding of how to better cultivate them. Messrs. Loddiges began to successfully grow and exhibit them at horticultural exhibitions.

It was at one such exhibition in 1833 that the popularity of orchid growing among the upper classes received another boost when William Spencer Cavendish, the sixth duke of Devonshire, became infatuated by Psychopsis (syn. Oncidium) papilio. Orchid fever overcame him and within 10 years he held the largest private orchid collection.

“Orchidelirium,” as the orchid passion came to be called, seemed to be rampant.
(The second part was in the December 2007 Orchids.)

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